Less than a year after their walloping in the AV referendum, the Lib Dems are pushing for constitutional change again. Their obsession with their hobby horse regardless of its electoral irrelevance has led them to resemble a bluebottle banging its head against a window, desperate to move ahead despite the battering it gets from its repeated failure.
This time it is House of Lords reform that forms their windowpane of choice . Supposedly, Clegg is demanding that it is prioritised in the Coalition’s legislative programme.
They will face all sorts of problems – the question of whether there should be a referendum on constitutional changes (A: Yes), the question of whether we should be discussing this while the economy is struggling (A: No) and most importantly the question of what a new House of Lords should look like (A: Who knows?)
This last question is the most important – even the Lib Dems, who have thought about little else for the last 50 years, haven’t agreed on an answer. Should it be 100% elected, or partially elected and partially selected experts? Should it be done by STV, a list system, AV or another PR electoral technique? How long should the terms be, and how great should the powers of the chamber be? For that matter, should it be called the Lords, or the Senate or something else?
Personally, I do think Britain should have an elected Upper Chamber. It is perverse to have an unelected, unaccountable chamber disrupting and sabotaging the work of a legislature elected by the people.
I emphatically do not think we should be prioritising Lords reform now, however. People want the economy boosted, and growth restored – if we had a proper system for initiating popular referenda, I strongly doubt we would see Lords reform jumping to the top of the list.
However, if the Lib Dems insist on changing it now, what should the new Lords look like?
For a start, I’d prefer to keep calling it the Lords, because I’m a bit sentimental like that. “Senates” and so on all sound a bit trendy, which is one thing Westminster definitely isn’t.
So how should we select it? The system would need to satisfy several requirements:
- it would need to be in keeping with the verdict from last year’s AV referendum that the people have no truck for obscure forms of PR (no matter how much the Lib Dems may love them)
- it would need to be affordable and efficient
- it would be important that it did not have a claim to greater legitimacy than the Commons
- it would be pointless if it simply produced a second house identical in makeup to the Commons
- if possible, it would be good if it did something to answer the concerns people have about votes being wasted in the First Past the Post system, while maintaining a constituency link where possible
I have a proposal that would fit each of these criteria. We fill the House of Lords with all those who come second in elections to the House of Commons – a “House of Losers”, if you will.
Let’s test it against the above criteria. We continue to use the First Past the Post system, which the people clearly don’t want to get rid of. We wouldn’t need to spend anything extra on holding another wave of elections. There would be no challenge to the legitimacy of the Commons, given that those on the green benches would have beaten the red benches at a general election. The new Lords would be a counterbalance to the Commons in their political makeup, providing for energetic scrutiny. Finally, millions of votes currently viewed by many as “wasted” on candidates who come second would in fact count for something – dramatically upping the proportion of voters who get a representative they voted for.
The important thing would be to get the powers of this new House of Losers right. Too little, and it would become redundant as a scrutineering chamber, too great and it would deliver gridlock. But that goes for any reform of the Lords – at least under this system we wouldn’t waste a fortune and we would improve the proportionality of our Parliamentary democracy.
The Yes2AV recriminations roll on with ever more intriguing revelations about how chaotic and unpleasant their campaign team were. Latest into the bearpit is Lib Dem James Graham, who works for Unlock Democracy. Graham is the first Yesser to claim the campaign’s failure was Labour’s fault – more specifically, Gordon “Jonah” Brown’s fault.
Graham writes that Paul Sinclair, an ex-Brown spinner, was running the comms operation. Apparently his Comms team seized centralised control of everything down to the tiniest micro detail, and allowed a culture of bullying to grow to the point where the junior staff felt they were in “a living nightmare”. The result – a demoralised organisation reliant on a tiny central bottleneck to get anything done.
Someone who worked for Gordon Brown being a controlling bully? Where could he have learned to behave that way?
The dust has settled, the fog of war has dissipated, and every other introductory cliche in the book has been used. What have we really learned about British politics from the crushing victory of the No2AV campaign? There are five implications that I can see for the practice and principle of politics. Here they are, in no particular order:
1) Combat Campaigning is here to stay. For several years now there have been signs that the methods and style of political campaigning have been evolving in Britain.As the old party system has become weaker, there were two voices vying to be its heir: on one side there was combative, streetfighting campaigning built on the belief that a proper dust-up interests people and produces the best ideas; on the other side was a consensus model, founded on the idea that no-one liked a nasty argument and it was much better to build a cosy centrist consensus.
Not only did the two sides in the AV referendum employ these two competing models – with No going combative and Yes opting for cuddles and herbal tea – but their beliefs aligned with them as well. AV is a system founded on the idea that politicians should share body warmth smack in the centre, whilst First Past the Post is about the battle of ideas.
The fact that No won bears out both the model of campaigning they employed and the belief that they were fighting for – people are more interested in a boxing match than a singalong. While Yes tried to argue that real life is preferential and consensual, voters thought otherwise. The campaigning style espoused by No, and pioneered in the UK by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, is successful and on that basis it here to stay.
2) The “Progressive Majority” doesn’t exist…except in the minds of Islingtonians who can’t bear to imagine that anyone might disagree with them. Whether it’s LeftFootForward, Laurie Penny, Polly Toynbee or Liberal Conspiracy there’s an in-built smug sense of virtue to the new British Left – they think something, they know they’re the most compassionate and sensible people on the block, so therefore everyone must think the same, right? I mean, almost every TV comedian does, so obviously the rest of the population are on board too? Nope. It turns out that only Islington, Camden, Hackney, Cambridge, Oxford and part of Glasgow supported AV, the “Progressive Majority’s” new favourite child – and nationally on 6.1 million people even support AV, never mind the Progressives’ supposed vision of Britain. The referendum proved that those who shout loudest are not automatically the most numerous.
3) There is no such thing as Progressive. Not only is there no majority in favour of it, there is actually no such thing as Progressivism. In effect it could be defined accurately as: Progressive, noun, Someone nice, ie in agreement with me.
The really notable thing about this referendum is the way that it split the Left. The Lib Dems and the self-declared “Progressive Majority” – a broadly young rump of Labour, the NUS and the SWP’s twitterati and commentariat – divided from the mass base that they normally assume they can ignore and still gain funding from.
I’m only an outsider looking in on the Left, but if you viewed yourself as “Progressive” before the referendum, only to be told that if you voted No then you weren’t in the club any more, you’d now be reassessing whether you’re a “Progressive” any more.
4) No-one likes a whinger. Someone – I can’t remember who – once said that “It isn’t fair” is the most powerful message in British politics.
They were right, but the Yes camp ably demonstrated that this is only true when your situation genuinely isn’t fair. It’s not fair that if you join the Army you end up buying your own kit. It’s not fair that if you save all your life and provide for your kids you get hammered with extra taxes while others get a subsidy at your expense. It’s not fair that the Gurkhas risked their lives for this nation then told them to do a running jump.
When your opponents in a referendum campaign starting hitting you hard by digging up quotes that prove you’ve done an about-face or talking about Nick Clegg, that certainly is fair. You’re not going to gain any fans by trying to get judges to enforce Marquess of Queensberry Rules – in fact, you’re going to make people think you’re a bit of a wet blanket and don’t deserve their vote. So don’t moan, fight back.
5) People want more power. In the run-up to the referendum, everyone was saying that turnout would be apocalyptically low, threatening the idea that people wanted to be allowed to vote on important matters. It’s understandable why they thought people might not turnout – AV was a proposal hardly anyone had heard of previously and even fewer people actually liked (including most of the Yes campaign).
But that’s not how it turned out. Even on a boring proposal which had been brought forward as a result of political shenanigans in Whitehall back-offices, more than 40% turned out. That’s not bad given the topic. Imagine how many would turn out to vote in a referendum on, say, EU membership?
From the outset, I’ve been on the Yes2AV mailing list – after all, it’s only sensible to see what the other side are doing. All along their rhetoric has been about the existence of a supposed “progressive majority” in the country who want electoral change above all else and therefore will storm through the polling booths to vote Yes on 5th May.
Early on, when the polls were in their favour, they plastered them all over their emails. Strangely, that element of their messaging has disappeared now that No have apparently opened up a 16 point lead. Their latest email is quite instructive as to how they are reacting to that setback, making two key points:
- The more people understand what AV is – the more likely they are to say Yes.
- Turnout will be lower than General Elections; the campaign that does a better job of ensuring its supporters go to the polls, wins.
The first point is utterly unfounded – the fact that as the campaign has gone on their initial lead has evaporate suggest precisely the opposite. Months out from a vote people are susceptible to an uncharacterised “hopey changey” message, but now they know about AV and are facing a referendum they are starting to swing against it.
The second point is a sign that Yes2AV are changing their tactics and their message. This is a cynical core vote strategy which hopes to win a majority of a handful of voters (which is ironic given that they are meant to be about ensuring “all MPs get more than 50% of the people’s support”). The days of their “progressive majority” are behind, and instead it’s about going all out for mediocrity.
It might work for them, of course – but if they do win on a tiny turnout it will damage the credibility of their case and pitch us into AV on very shaky terms.
The AV referendum on the 5th of May (on which I’ve made my support for the No side pretty clear, I think) is posing a bit of an existential challenge for the Electoral Commission. We live in an increasingly quango-hostile age, and the Commission has only really survived so long its present form because it’s been able to keep its head well below the parapet. Now, with a national referendum to deal with, it’s no longer able to avoid controversy.
Interestingly, the most vitriolic group on the topic of the Commission appear to be returning officers themselves. One I met recently told me that while he’d been running local and general election counts for years, the Commission seemed intent on patronising him to an unimaginable degree. According to him, Jenny Watson – the Electoral Commission’s Chair – has issued the absurd total of 206 instructions and guidelines on the AV referendum.
At the Association of Electoral Administrators’ annual conference in Brighton a couple of months back, Watson was meant to be taking part in a panel session about the referendum. She missed the start of it, having been delayed on her way to Brighton. As one wag remarked, presumably she’d given 206 instructions to her taxi driver, assuming she knew best despite the fact he’d been doing the job for years.
I’ve blogged in the past about the dubious sources of funding coming to the Yes to AV campaign. Now a special investigation by the Spectator‘s Ed Howker has exposed the way the Electoral Reform Society – which provides the majority of the Yes campaign’s resources – has not only tried to cover up its true levels of donation to the campaign but stands to benefit financially if AV is introduced.
The ERS is the major shareholder in Electoral Reform Services Limited (ERSL), the main vendor of ballot papers, ballot counting and electric counting machines in the UK. In their own words, “There is almost no aspect of our democracy ERSL’s services do not touch” and they have just been awarded the contract for counting machines for the London Mayoral election.
As ERSL’s own internal documents admit, there is a distinct possibility “that ERSL will profit as a result of a YES vote (increased business opportunities).” Given their massive and successful marketing efforts already, it seems clear they will seek to do so – and if they do, then their shareholder the ERS will do so too through its hefty dividends.
Put against that background, we now have an explanation as to why the Electoral Reform Society used to oppose AV strongly – even to the extent of saying “as AV is not a proportional system, the Society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament” – but mysteriously deleted that section of their website, as documented here. It seems that as soon as the prospect of “increased business opportunities” hove into view, they swiftly ditched their supposed principles and started backing the AV horse.
The Spectator investigation is an absolutely must-read piece – and utterly dispels the so-called “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign’s claims to be a pure-hearted gang of principled campaigners. Amusingly, according to ERSL’s website, the Electoral Reform Society “has sought to raise the standards of probity and honesty involved with ballots”. On this occasion they’ve let that standard down and utterly blackened their name.
The debate over AV is a complex one – but it turns out that Auf Wiedersehen, Pet features probably the best, most concise argument against the proposed system.
The crew decided they want to paint their shed, but are unable to agree which colour. Eventually, they decided to vote on it – using a preferential system*….
The winning colour is yellow, which no-one actually wanted but won on second preferences – supposedly, “that’s democracy”. As Neville says, “Don’t talk bollocks, man.”
*(Before any electoral reform geeks go bonkers, yes I know they don’t use pure AV but instead use the Borda count system where you give 2 points to first preference and one point to second – but if they’d used pure AV they’d have got exactly the same result.)
The “Labour Yes” pro-AV campaign group is always keen to boast that “Labour is the party of change”. Unfortunately, it seems that for at least some of their supporters that “change” means completely flipping their opinion on a matter of the most fundamental principle.
Yesterday, they proudly announced five new Parliamentary supporters, including Wayne David MP, Shadow Minister for Europe.
It’s strange to see, then, the very same Wayne David quoted in Hansard as saying:
“I am convinced that first past the post is the most appropriate method of election in this country for all tiers of government” (9 July 2002)
That’s pretty unequivocal, by any measure – but it seems a mysterious conversion has taken place. What drove Wayne into this “change”? If First Past the Post was his first choice, why does he now want it to be thrown aside – like the votes of so many people will be under AV?
The AV referendum is incredibly important for British democracy – not so much because of the actual question on the table but because the way it runs will heavily influence the future of direct democracy in this country.
I, like many others, want to see a lot more referenda in Britain. We deserve votes on the EU, on any constitutional changes and on local tax rises, to name but a few. Ideally citizens should be able to initiate a referendum on any issue of their choosing via a right of initiative.
The chance of that happening rests largely, though unofficially, on the AV referendum. If it becomes a farce with a tiny turnout, then there is a risk that it will discredit the idea of asking the people about anything – the defenders of the Westminster elite will crow at any and every opportunity that people just aren’t bothered.
But if the AV vote does turn out to be an absurd waste of time, it will not be because the people aren’t interested in being consulted on things.
For a start, AV is in itself a boring and obscure system which is a peculiar choice of referendum topic. That puts this referendum at a disadvantage in terms of turnout.
To counteract that, campaigners and politicians have a serious responsibility. The Yes and No camps must run active, interesting and exciting campaigns to ensure that people are exercised about the topic (difficult as that may be). I think they have both got off to a pretty good start on that front.
The real weak link in the chain at the minute is in Parliament. The BBC today reports that Labour Peers are blocking the Bill to such an extent that it may not go through in time to actually hold the referendum on the planned date of May 5th.
If they persist in their delaying tactics and the date does have to be moved, it would be a disgraceful disservice to democracy. Allowing campaigns to get up and running only to delay the vote will turn this referendum into a farce and further confuse and alienate the public.
I don’t like AV, so I don’t think it would be a missed opportunity on that front, but if this harms the prospect of future referenda on things that actually do matter, there should be hell to pay.